Michael J. Swart

December 20, 2011

Write Better

Filed under: Miscelleaneous SQL — Tags: — Michael J. Swart @ 11:20 pm

I have a confession to make. I suck at writing. In high school, I was never at the top of my English class and my University accepted my application despite my English marks. But even though I majored in Math and Computer Science, my essay-writing days weren’t over. The University I went to required that all students “demonstrate a proficiency in English” before graduating. To demonstrate that, we were required to write an exam, a single essay. I thought I could get by because English is my first language. So I was surprised when I found out that I failed that exam!  Ugh…

Then I made a choice which in hindsight turned out to be one of the best things I could have done. In my second year, I signed up for an English course as an elective. It was an introduction to essay writing. I worked hard and did well. In that course I learned a few things I should have learned many years earlier. Those things can be boiled down into:

  • Have something to write
  • Write it with the reader in mind
  • Don’t write anything else

Have something to write

Or in other words have a point. I’m going to repeat that because it’s a lesson I find myself relearning often: Have a point. I need to have something to write more than I need to write something (if that makes sense).

Corollary for bloggers: Don’t feel guilty about writer’s block.

Write it with the reader in mind

If I’m writing a blog article, I try to ask myself “who’s the reader?” Some common readers include these people:

  • A keen SQL professional googling for a solution. I love writing posts for this person. It usually starts with myself googling for a problem and not finding anything (or being disappointed with what I do find). I like to think that I’m helping people in the same situation I was in. (Examples: Searching Inside Strings: CPU is Eight Times Worse For Unicode Strings, Eliminated Null Values)
  • Myself: I used to write a lot of articles for myself. They were quick scripts that I could quickly get access to as long as I had internet access. I still use them even today (Examples: Indexing Foreign KeysDisowning Your Relatives)
  • Potential employers, clients or trainees: A perfectly valid set of readers, but writing for them is tricky. You’re bragging (which is okay) but you don’t want to appear like you’re bragging (which is not okay) so keep it subtle. Keep the audience in mind. It’s better if the message is “I love this stuff” or “I can help you” rather than “Look how smart I am.”
  • RSS Readers and Link Followers: Yep, that’s you! (both of you). You enjoy keeping up with SQL Server industry news by following various SQL Server blogs including this one. Something piqued your interest about the title and you started reading (btw, thanks for reading this far!).

Don’t write anything else

This is Mark Twain’s “Employ a simple and straightforward style.” It’s also George Orwell’s “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”

Writing clearly goes back to having a point. If a sentence, word or paragraph does not help your point then it probably doesn’t belong. When you omit the unimportant stuff, what’s left is packed with meaning.

One trick I use is to do a brain dump. I quickly type an outline of what I want to write so that I don’t forget anything. Often this simple outline gets included into the post verbatim.


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